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‘Six dog rule’ threat looms


DOG ENTHUSIASTS who own six dogs or more may find themselves faced with the threat of having to apply for planning permission to alter the designation of their own homes, thanks to a little-known rule which can be applied by Local Authority planning departments.

The health and welfare of the dogs, as well as the conditions in which they are kept are, according to one planning department official, ‘irrelevant’, as is the size or breed of the dogs. The mere fact that there are six dogs or more is enough for the rule to be invoked – even though the LA may not even know as to what status the owner’s domestic dwelling should be changed!

The matter came to light at a recent meeting of the Dog Legislation Advisory Group when Mike Findlay, Chief Executive of the canine charity PRO Dogs, drew the attention of the group’s members to a directive implemented by some local authority planning departments within local authorities. This states that dog owners with in excess of six dogs on their premises need to apply for a licence to alter the status of their property as it is no "longer
considered a dwelling place".

Mr Findlay described a situation that a PRODogs member is currently experiencing. The member, a well known Shar-Pei breeder and exhibitor, keeps 18 dogs in kennels on his property. He was investigated by the local dog warden for an unrelated issue and was then visited by a planning officer. The officer appeared uninterested in the welfare or conditions of the dog, but simply stated that Mr P (name withheld at owner’s request) would have to apply for planning permission as he had over six dogs and this made his home "no longer a domestic dwelling".

Mr P, who is also a local JP – asked the officer what his home would be re-designated as. "I put it to him that it wasn’t a breeding establishment – most of my dogs are retired, and I only breed one or two litters a year, so I don’t even need a licence. Nor is it a sanctuary, or a boarding kennels. He simply shrugged and said he didn’t know, but stated that ‘in his view owning more than six dogs was not for domestic or residential purposes’.

The discussion reached a stalemate, at which point the planning officer departed. A few days later, Mr P received a letter explaining that he had 21 days to apply for planning permission or he would receive an enforcement notice requiring him to reduce the number of dogs on his premises to six. Additionally, the cost of planning permission was £200. Mr P pursued the matter further with the planning officer and found that he was also unable to provide an answer as to which organisation was to take responsibility for the dogs should planning permission be refused.

Mr P then referred the matter to PRO Dogs, where it was raised by Mike Findlay at the DLAG meeting. Mr Findlay asked whether other members had heard of similar instances of Local Authorities implementing this policy. There was some anecdotal evidence of two similar cases in recent years, including one in Stratford-on-Avon involving the owner of several Greyhounds who successfully appealed in the High Court against the local authority’s diktat that he needed planning permission to keep the number of dogs he had.

DLAG is currently investigating the ‘six dog rule’ and its legality, whilst checking corresponding LA’s positions on the matter.

Meanwhile, Mr P is pursuing the six-dog rule and the planning permission application with his local authority and has asked a number of searching questions of the planning officer by letter, to which he has not yet received a response.

Responsible

Mr P told OUR DOGS: "We have always tried to be highly responsible dog owners, and have over the years gained an excellent reputation for the high standards of care and welfare we provide for our dogs. Wherever we have been, we have also given the utmost consideration to any neighbours, and been very conscious of our responsibilities to those around us. No one has ever complained, nor had cause to do so. We get on exceptionally well with our present neighbours. Against this background, we would of course wish to comply with any statutory requirements, and believe we have always done so. However, I am not at all happy about being coerced into applying for planning permission on the tenuous grounds put to me under a ruling that is questionable in law.

"I am particularly concerned that people who, through their deep involvement in the world of dogs, are usually as well informed as ourselves, could know nothing of such a ‘guideline’, which, if implemented in the simplistic form in which it was notified to us, could have a devastating impact on the way thousands of dog owners like ourselves were now to be ‘allowed’ to enjoy their hobby in the privacy of their own homes."

Mr P made enquiries about the matter with friends within the dog fancy. His enquiries were met with every sort of reaction, ranging through disbelief, shock, and derision, to alarm, anxiety and trepidation, and not a little anger. Missing, however, was any knowledge or awareness of this apparent ‘guideline’, and how or where it had been, or was to be, implemented.

Mr P continues: "In innocently seeking this information, I seem to have set a number of hares racing in the higher echelons of the dog world. The issue seems to have gathered considerable momentum. There is now a great deal of concern in many quarters, and particularly amongst major bodies, including the Kennel Club, and high-profile organisations such as PRODogs, the National Canine Defence League and the BVA, all of whom appear to have little or no knowledge of this, but have suddenly become painfully aware of its implications.

"However, every organisation seems to have taken on board the serious implications for dog owners nationally if this guideline is to be actively pursued by Local Authorities, and are now in the throes of urgently seeking clarification through a number of official channels. The Dog Legislation Advisory Group is attempting to seek clarification and guidance at a national level, and through Government.

"Perhaps unfortunately for my LA’s planning officer, I am a JP and well acquainted with the law – I am seriously concerned that the application of this ‘guideline’ actually breaches Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which relates to the Freedom of the Individual, and also Article 14 which covers the Prohibition of Discrimination. I am looking forward to the Planning Officer’s answers to my questions and I will be more than happy to share these with OUR DOGS and DLAG."

*These are the questions that Mr P asked his Local Authority Planning Officer about the ‘six dog rule’ and the need to apply for planning permission:

Change of use – to what? You have accepted in your letter that, in our case, we keep our dogs purely as a hobby, and as pets. We do not run a commercial kennels, we are not commercial breeders – we simply keep and show dogs, in the same way that others may keep their choice of antiques, fine art, or any other ‘collectible’.

How long has this ‘guideline’ been in place? If recent, is it right to apply it to owners retrospectively, who, as in our case, may have bought a property some years ago (over 5 years in our case) precisely because it offered the facilities, had an ideal location, and was of a size which enabled the number of dogs owned – and the owners – to be kept in comfort, and without hindrance to others?

What is the objective of pursuing this ‘guideline’? What do the Local Authority mean to achieve in now pursuing individuals (like ourselves) who have quietly enjoyed their hobby for many years without causing harm or hindrance to anyone – except of course the accrual of fee income for the LA, and considerable worry, heartache, cost and harassment for the targeted owners. And what is achieved by this?

What are the criteria to be used in assessing whether the application is granted? Number of dogs per sq ft? Dogs kept inside/outside the house etc? Are these planning criteria, or those of other departments within the LA? Who exactly will have an input to the recommendations to the Council on whether or not a Planning Application under this ‘guideline’ should be approved?

Are these criteria consistent across all local authorities? And are they consistently applied? If not, how can this be fair to individual owners?

With exactly what statute/regulation/byelaw etc are we meant to be complying? Could you please quote it, or send a copy, so that we know exactly what we are supposed to do?

Are all local authorities now pursuing the application of this ‘guideline’? If not, how can this be fair, on the basis that it becomes simply a function of where a particular owner happens to live, and the discretion shown by their LA? (Random enquiries of around a dozen LAs, widely spread, have all had either ‘no knowledge’ or ‘no intention’ responses)

Your letter says that ‘the keeping of more than six dogs at the property is not normally regarded as a use which is incidental to the domestic enjoyment of the dwelling house’. By whom? Surely the only people who can judge whether or not they ‘enjoy’ having the number of dogs they do is the owner? And can’t it be assumed that if the owners are reasonably intelligent people with high personal standards, and they didn’t enjoy it, and it didn’t fit in with their domestic bliss, they wouldn’t do it? What therefore is the definition of ‘normal’, ‘incidental’ and ‘domestic enjoyment’ in this context?

Is this ‘requirement’ really based purely on the number of dogs kept at the premises (as stated in your letter) – i.e. 6 Great Danes in a council house equates to six Corgis in Buckingham Palace? If so, how is this justified, and what is the rationale for this simplistic approach?

Is this a positive or a negative application? I.e. will permission be granted unless you can find valid reasons why not? Or will it not be granted unless the applicant can provide valid reasons to be allowed to carry on doing what he, and thousands of other responsible dog owners, have been doing for years (this will determine the way in which any application is framed)

Is this requirement to be levelled at all the thousands of owners of 6 dogs or more in the LA area? If not, why not? And why, consequently, is a particular owner being singled out, and put at the risk of refusal, and to a high financial penalty?

Does an owner have to be the subject of a complaint (even though, as in our case, it has been accepted that the single complaint was unfounded) before this requirement is invoked?

Or is such a complaint merely a means of the Planning Dept identifying an owner with more than 6 dogs? If the trigger is a complaint, how does the applicant know whether the complaint is genuine, or simply malicious, or encouraged by others with ill intent? (and we are all aware how frequently this happens)

What is the justification for asking an owner arbitrarily to pay a fee of £220 to be ‘allowed’ to continue to enjoy a hobby they have enjoyed for many years, without causing any problems or hindrance to anyone? And with the inherent risk that in due course, for reasons which are currently unknown, you may tell the owner that they are no longer ‘allowed’ to do this?

Allowance

Could this requirement for a £220 upfront, non-refundable fee be construed as a direct penalty against responsible dog owners, who are guilty of no contraventions, and have been quietly enjoying their hobby in the privacy of their own homes for many years?

Within this arbitrary figure of ‘six’, what allowance is made for puppies under 12 months of age, older dogs, say ‘veterans’ over 7 years of age, being cared for in their ‘retirement’ (I am sure applauded by your Welfare colleagues), dogs who have ill health, and need special care
Do similar arbitrary rules apply to the numbers of other animals that can be kept? How many rabbits, canaries, cats, snakes, and guinea pigs do you ‘allow’? If there is no such restriction, how is discrimination against dog owners justified?

How many owners have been served with this requirement in the LA area? With what result? If they were refused, what were the grounds?

What application has this ‘guideline’ had nationally? How many cases have been pursued?

How many were granted/refused? What were the respective reasons? If there are few, why is the LA pursuing this with such apparent zeal (apart from the obvious one of trying to assist their budget by accruing ‘easy’ fees of £220 a time from people who are perhaps often vulnerable due to their age and their deep emotional commitment to their animals)?

Has this requirement been tested against the Human Rights Act 1998? (Specifically against Articles 8 and 14, and Article 1 of the First Protocol?)

Can you please define the process through which an application passes? Both if granted and if not, together with indications of costs involved at each stage? (We need to be able to assess the risks we are being asked to take.)

Does a ’change of use’ have implications for Council Tax charges on the property?
To whom will letters be sent by the Planning Dept advising third parties of the Application? Will the owner be advised of the recipients, and where public notices are to be displayed? Will any objections be made known to the applicant, or do they have the cloak of anonymity? If so, how does an applicant know they are genuine objections, and not malicious, mischievous, colluded, or even fabricated?

Will letters sent to third parties, particularly neighbours, clearly and unequivocally make clear that, although the application is for a ‘change of use’, no actual change of use will take place? This is a major concern amongst many owners, who fear that reference to a ‘change of use’, without absolute clarification as to why the application is having to be made, could be totally misunderstood by the recipients, and consequently invite objections based on an implication that there was to be an upgrading or an increase in activity at the premises, for example to a commercial kennels, or to a breeding establishment. It may be difficult for many neighbours, or the public, to understand that in this case ‘change of use’ actually means ‘no change of use’ to that which they have been used to, and that it is purely a bureaucratic normalisation, with absolutely no intentions of expanding or extending any activities, which will stay exactly as they currently are.